Utah’s Catholic diocese and House speaker oppose clergy confession bill

(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City and the Utah House speaker have come out against a bill that would force clergy to report allegations of child abuse obtained in a religious confessional.

Sponsored by Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, HB90 specifically calls for removing the exemption that clerics now have in certain circumstances for reporting abuse.

“The motivation for the bill is understandable, to uncover and stop the abuse of children," Jean Hill, government liaison for the diocese overseeing Utah’s more than 300,000 Catholics, wrote in a recent statement, “but HB90 will not have this intended effect."

“For a Catholic priest, revealing the contents of a person’s confession is a mortal sin and grounds for automatic excommunication,” she wrote in the Intermountain Catholic. “ ... HB90 places a Catholic priest in the untenable position of violating state law and facing criminal penalties, or violating canon law and facing excommunication.”

In the statement, Hill encouraged Utah Catholics to contact state legislators and ask them to oppose the measure that, she warns, would force individuals o choose between their religious beliefs and prison, “the very situation the First Amendment was meant to protect against.”

Hill called HB90 “a bad law" that does not protect children and could prevent a sex offender from coming forward, "allowing the priest to counsel him/her to seek help from police and trained personnel, making the world a bit safer for vulnerable children.”

Most states require clergy to report abuse. All but six, however, protect what is said within a religious confession. Removal of that “clergy-penitent” privilege, religious leaders argue, violates the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.

If HB90 passes and becomes laws, Utah would join New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Texas and West Virginia in denying the clergy-penitent privilege in child abuse cases, according to Child Welfare Information Gateway.

Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, told the Catholic League that he, too, opposes Romero’s measure.

“I have serious concerns about this bill and the effects it could have on religious leaders as well as their ability to counsel members of their congregation," Wilson wrote in an email to the civil rights organization. "I do not support this bill in its current form and — unless significant changes are made to ensure the protection of religious liberties — I will be voting against this bill.”

Since the draft of HB90 has been made public, Romero said she has received a significant amount of “hate mail."

“Standing up for victims and survivors of child abuse is the right thing to do!" she wrote on Twitter. "Shame on the @CatholicLeague for their hateful campaign & misrepresenting my bill.”

Other churches also are watching the measure closely.

In the Lutheran Church, confessions are done as a group, said the Rev. Jon Micheel, pastor at Taylorsville’s Prince of Peace Lutheran Church. After a prayer of confession, the pastor will pause, so each person can “reflect silently." There is then a public absolution that Jesus has taken away sins.

“We do offer a private confession and encourage its use if something is particularly bothering someone and weighing on their conscience,” he said, adding that keeping those conversations confidential is practical. “We want people to be able to come to us and unburden themselves and in order to encourage people to do that, the conversation is confidential.”

There are, however, exceptions when another person is in danger or safety is at risk. “It’s also God’s will that if someone is currently being hurt or abused, that that stop,” Micheel said. "We will report, when someone is in immediate danger.”

HB90 could impact other religions in which confessions are kept confidential, including Eastern Orthodox and the state’s predominant faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The LDS Church has said it is reviewing HB90 and its implications before taking a position.